Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 9


We arrived at the border of Fortos late the following morning

No matter how many times I’d made this trek, I was always surprised at the severe change in landscape between the two kingdoms. The leafy forests of Lumnos, now abundant with autumn’s flame-colored foliage, gave way so abruptly to the rocky flatlands of Fortos that it almost seemed as if the magic that reigned over the realms was infused into nature itself.

And perhaps it was. Teller had once mentioned something about the Descended’s abilities being tied to the soil of their realm of origin—or as they called it, their terremère.

He had come home from school one day and recounted with breathless fascination the story of a Descended woman who had defected from the snow-capped mountains of Montios to the secretive realm of Umbros. There, she’d given birth to a son sired by a mortal. Though the child was a Descended—as the laws classified anyone with even a drop of Descended blood as such—he initially showed no signs of magic.

However, after coming of age, the son felt an irresistible calling to return to his terremère. The moment his foot touched down on Montios soil, the ice magic native to the realm had unleashed. His body transformed into a walking blizzard that froze everything in sight as the pressure from years of magical restraint melted away.

According to Teller, the story was taught to Descended youth as a cautionary tale to discourage them from ever leaving their terremère, but I wondered if the real villain of the parable was shadowy, mysterious Umbros and its uncanny ability to pull Descended and mortals alike into its darkness, rarely to be seen again.

As we approached the border, I stole a glance at Henri and nearly burst with laughter at his glazed eyes and satisfied, sex-addled grin. His thoughts were clearly still back at the campsite.

“Mind in the gutter?”

His expression went sheepish. “Is it that obvious?”

I took the apple core I’d been nibbling on and tossed it playfully at his chest.

“I missed you,” he said quietly. “I missed us.”

“Me too,” I said, and this time, it wasn’t a lie.

Six months of grief-induced celibacy had created an awkward tension between us that we’d both needed to ease. For Henri, the relief had been immediate. He’d already fallen back into the comforting familiarity of our romance as if we’d never paused.

As for me… I just needed time. Time to figure out who I was—and who we were together.

“I’ve been thinking,” he started, his words slow and deliberate. “I was wondering if y—”

Ow!” I yelped as a painful current shot through my body. “What was that?”

Henri’s blade was in his hand in an instant as his eyes scanned me. “What happened?”

I yanked my horse to a stop and searched for some sign of a wound or injury. The pain had been sudden and ephemeral, crashing like a wave before it just as quickly ebbed away. A faint throbbing still lingered in my limbs.

“Were you attacked?” He pulled up on his reins and whirled his head from side to side, scouring the vegetation for a hidden assailant.

But I couldn’t find anything on my body—no blood, no angry red skin, not even a single point where I could localize the pain. The sensation had radiated from around me like it came from the very air itself.

“I—I’m not sure.”

I glanced over my shoulder, scanning the road. My eyes fell to two circular plaques, one etched with Lumnos’s emblem, a flaming sun inset with a crescent moon, and the other engraved with a sword crossed with a bone, the sigil of Fortos. The golden panels were inset into the Ring Road along the strange demarcation line of grass and rock that marked the Lumnos-Fortos border.

The border. I’d felt the sensation just as we’d crossed it.

“Magic,” I breathed. My shoulders sagged in relief. “Fortos must have set up magical wards along their border.”

Henri frowned. “I didn’t feel anything.”

“Maybe it only affects women,” I grumbled. “Wouldn’t surprise me. Isn’t it the only realm that’s never had a Queen?” I huffed irritably. “How convenient that their precious magic has never found a woman worthy of the Crown.”

“That probably has to do with their magic.” Henri caught my confused look. “You know how every realm has two kinds of magic? Light and shadow in Lumnos, stone and ice in Montios, sea and air in Meros, and so on.”

No, I didn’t know about it at all—and frankly, I wondered how Henri did. The details of Descended magic were never taught to us in mortal schools. But Henri said it with such a casual, flippant tone that I felt suddenly insecure about my ignorance, so I bit my tongue and nodded.

“Well, in the other realms, most Descended get one type of magic or the other. Only the very strongest get both. In Fortos, it works differently. The female Descended always get healing magic, while the male Descended get the power to kill—they can make your body decay right in front of their eyes. Makes them tough to beat in a fight. There are some who aren’t fully male or female and have both types of magic, but I hear that’s rare.”

My nose wrinkled at the idea of one’s gender determining their fate. “Why would that affect how the Crown passes down?”

“Because it passes to the next most powerful Descended.”

“So?”

“So if only the men get the killing magic, they’ll always be the most powerful.”

My head shifted at a tilt, a hint of danger surfacing in my tone. “Because a fighter is more powerful than a healer, right?”

“Right.”

Daggers fired from my steel-silver eyes.

His face blanched. “I mean—no, I didn’t mean—of course not. Healers are strong. Very strong! Just as powerful—more powerful, even—”

“Next time you come crawling to me with an injury, I sure hope I’m not too weak and powerless to treat you.”

He flashed me a sheepish smile. “Would it help if I admit that you could definitely kick my ass in a fight?”

It did. A little.

“I could take Maura, though,” he said.

I snorted. “No, you couldn’t.”

He didn’t answer—too busy looking down at his biceps and flexing them with a frown.

“How do you know so much about Fortos magic?” I asked.

“Know your enemy intimately, remember?”

He shot me a suggestive smirk, and though I gave him the most exasperated eyeroll I could muster, the corner of my lips curled upward.

“Perhaps the bias in their magic carried over into how they run the army,” I said. “All the women who enlist are pigeonholed into roles with no prestige or command.”

I thought of the many times I’d overheard my father’s old soldier friends bemoan that women were “distractions” among the infantry’s ranks. To his credit, my father had always taken them to task for it.

If any man finds himself facing my Diem on a battlefield, the best end he can hope for is that she makes it quick, he had joked.

I smiled at the memory.

“That’s not true,” Henri argued. “Most of the army’s spies are women.”

“Spies?” My eyebrows flew upward. “If I’d known that, maybe I would have enlisted.”

I was only half joking.

Henri grabbed my braid, tickling my nose with the end of it. “Something tells me the only girl in Emarion with bright white hair and grey eyes might have a few problems sneaking around unrecognized.”

I swatted him away and laughed, but a twinge of sadness lodged in my ribs. He had a point. My distinctive appearance meant I might never be able to leave the safety of Mortal City, where enough townsfolk knew my mortal heritage that being mistaken for a Descended was never more than a passing risk.

In a world where mortals survived by blending in and avoiding attention, I was a walking red flag.

“Where did you hear that—about the army spies?”

Henri’s posture shifted almost indiscernibly. “I used to know one. I delivered messages for her.” He frowned at me. “Are you sure you’re not hurt?”

The question took me by surprise, and I realized I’d been absently rubbing at my still-aching skin. I gave one last glance behind me to the abrupt edge of the forest’s growth. I’d passed over the Lumnos-Fortos border countless times in my life, but never had I felt anything like that.

“I’m fine. Just a fluke, I suppose.”

We shared a look, neither of us quite convinced. With no other answers to give, we continued on in silence toward the mighty capital of Fortos.


A few hours later, I found myself in a nondescript concrete box of a warehouse, humming as I browsed shelf after shelf of glass jars containing every item under the sun. The army stocked medicinal ingredients native to all nine realms, and Maura had sent a list of supplies that needed refilling back at the center.

“Thank you for letting us do this,” I called out from behind a row of fluffy dried mosses and curling strips of ashen tree bark. “It’s become so hard for mortals to get these things lately.”

“Anything for Auralie,” a robust but kindly voice rebounded in response. “I owe her more debts than I can count. The least I can do is let her daughter rob me blind now and then.”

“We have tried to pay you, Leona. Many times.”

“Oh, please. Bellator money is no good in these parts. If I tried to take it, Blessed Fortos himself might show up and strike me dead.”

I tried to picture the fearsome Kindred warrior-god raising a finger to defend a mortal, even ones as honored as my parents. The thought was so inconceivable I nearly laughed.

“How are things in Lumnos?” Leona asked. “Rumor says your King is not long for this world.”

“Oh really?” I mused, feigning ignorance. Though I’d discovered the King’s illness from Teller and Henri, I had still taken a sacred vow to keep the status of my center’s patients confidential.

“The Descended healers think we should see a change in the Crown any day now. Haven’t seen that in my lifetime.”

I didn’t respond.

“I understand the King of Fortos is preparing to send soldiers your way if things get bloody in the transition.”

I didn’t like the sound of that at all. The last thing Mortal City needed was soldiers marching into Lumnos to take control in the wake of King Ulther’s death. I wondered, with a shiver of dread, what they might do to the mortal healers who hadn’t done enough to keep him alive.

“Bloody?” I walked out from behind the shelves to find Leona scribbling an inventory of the multicolored powders that lay in precariously stacked heaps around her. “Why would it get bloody? I thought their magic picked an heir and everyone accepted it.”

“That’s how it’s supposed to go, but you know how folks can get when there’s power up for grabs.”

I snorted softly. Another thing I had no real knowledge of. I’d never had anything resembling power in my life.

“Do your realm’s Descended know who the heir will be yet?” she asked.

Prince Luther’s sharp, calculating glare flashed unbidden in my mind. The reminder of him standing so close to me in that hallway, the way it affected me, the heat of his touch and the coldness of his gaze, made my heartbeat stutter.

“Yes,” I hissed.

She raised an eyebrow. “I take it you don’t like this person?”

“It hardly matters. I don’t imagine it will make much of a difference to my life.”

Unless future King Luther decides I need to pay my mother’s debt.

Leona paused her work and watched me for a long moment. “Since your mother’s not around anymore, let me give you a little maternal advice. Whatever opinions you have on this person, you keep them to yourself, you hear me? Put on a pretty smile and keep your mouth shut.”

A host of snippy responses rose to my tongue, but I needed this woman’s help, today and for years to come. I bit down hard and nodded obediently.

Leona didn’t seem to buy it. She skimmed the warehouse before leaning in close, her voice dropping to a harsh clip.

“Heed my advice, girl. These Descended may squabble with each other like dogs, but nothing unites them faster than a mortal who doesn’t know their place.” Her knobby finger poked my arm for added emphasis. “And don’t think your little mortal friends won’t turn on you in a heartbeat if the Descended come calling.”

I wondered if she might turn on me in a heartbeat if the Descended came calling. I wondered if this wasn’t so much advice as it was a threat.

I summoned an appreciative smile. “You’re so kind to look out for me. Don’t you worry, I have no interest in making any enemies at all, mortal or Descended.”

I hoped she read between the lines.

Leona’s eyes roamed over me in a sharp appraisal before she harrumphed and turned back to her work. “You keeping things together, with your mother gone?”

Gone.

A brutal question. I was grateful she couldn’t see how I cringed at the words.

“Doing the best I can with what the gods have given me,” I said almost robotically, parroting the words my mother had used a hundred times before. It was the right answer, judging by the woman’s grunt of approval.

“You hear anything yet about what happened to her?”

“No.” I asked carefully, “Have you?”

She shook her head.

I chewed on my lip and pressed further. “Did she mention anything to you about any trips she had planned?”

“No, not that I was aware of.”

“What about…” I hesitated. “Do you know of any work she might have been doing for one of the Descended? Maybe… a powerful one?”

Leona’s hands paused on her work, but her eyes didn’t rise to meet mine. “You mean healing work?”

“Or… other work.”

I held my breath. It was a big risk—especially after her warning—but a calculated one. If Luther was using my mother for something other than her healing services, it might have a connection to her time in the army.

For several unnerving moments, Leona stared at her stilled hands and said nothing. I forced myself to keep rummaging through the shelves, lazily filling my bag with supplies as if the question was only idle chatter.

Her shrewd gaze finally met mine. “What are you getting at, girl?”

My sad smile wasn’t hard to conjure. My despair over my mother’s loss was a tattoo permanently etched beneath my skin, invisible to the world but never far from the surface. “Just looking for answers wherever I can.”

A touch of sympathy warmed her features. “I wish I had something to offer. Sometimes we have to accept that there are questions we won’t ever find the answers to.”

Never. When it came to my mother, I would never give up searching.

“Is there anyone else here I could talk to that might know more about—”

No.”

The answer was so final, so unequivocal, that the jar of rainbow-tinted gryvern scales I was clutching nearly tumbled to the stone floor.

“I only meant to ask if—”

“No,” she said again, louder this time. “If your mother was doing work for the army, I would know about it, and I don’t. Sniffing around won’t end well, for you or for Auralie.” Her ash-brown eyes narrowed. “I think you’ve gathered enough supplies for today. Best be on your way now.”

My heart fell. I hadn’t realized just how desperately I’d needed this trip to finally give me some answers. With this door slammed in my face, I felt further from my mother than I ever had.

Dejected, I hurriedly packed my things to leave while Leona stood guard and watched.

I’d loaded my now-overstuffed bags onto my shoulders when my eyes snagged on a metal cage hidden in a corner behind a series of bookshelves. It wasn’t the cage that struck me, but the vibrant color blaring through it. I inched closer. Could that be?

My breath caught.

Even if the violent crimson hue hadn’t given the flameroot away, the distinctive crescent-shaped vial was so familiar to my palm that I could pick it out blind. I’d held it in my hand, glared at it with trepidation and resentment, nearly every day that I could remember.

It was the one medicine I couldn’t make, buy, or substitute. With my own supply sitting on the sea floor, I’d done my best to convince myself I didn’t need it anymore.

But the tricks my mind had been playing on me… The glow at the palace. The wolf in the forest.

As much as I tried to justify it all away, I knew my symptoms were returning. The same symptoms that had haunted me all those years ago—visions, feelings I couldn’t explain. The belief that I was doing things I shouldn’t be able to do…

Magic.

I had hallucinated that I had magic.

And for a brief, terrifying time, as the brown eyes and auburn hair marking me as a mortal had faded from my features, I’d even believed myself to be a Descended.

I’d been hysterical at the time, nearly throwing myself into the Sacred Sea at the horrifying prospect that I might be one of the monsters from the ghastly stories my friends swapped at school.

But my mother had held me close, calmed me with soothing words and a tender touch, and broke the news that the man who had sired me had suffered from similar delusions that had driven him to his demise.

I’d hoped, somehow, that it would not pass to you, she’d told me in a voice soaked with despair, but don’t you worry, my little warrior. I will protect you. I will not let you end up like him.

And as soon as I’d begun the morning flameroot regime—a pinch of the bitter powder mixed well in a cup of steaming water—the visions had stopped. Though it turned my mind cloudy and my emotions stunted, my life had returned to blissful normalcy.

But now. Now

I noted a heavy iron padlock secured to the door of the cage. “Could I get some of this as well?” I called out, motioning to the vials.

Leona followed where I was pointing with wide, panicked eyes. Again she looked around for spying eyes and ears, her motions more frantic than before. She rushed over to the cage and yanked a piece of fabric over the top to conceal its contents, then whipped back to me. “Why do you need that?

“We ran out,” I said hesitantly. “Is there a problem?”

“What do you use it for?”

I could sense in her tone that the question was a test—a dangerous test.

“I, uh… I’m not sure. I’d have to check my mother’s notes.” A careful answer.

“How did you get any in the first place? You need permission from all nine Crowns to get even an ounce of that.”

I couldn’t think fast enough to stop my look of shock.

“That cage is warded so only the King of Fortos can open it,” Leona hissed. “Even the Chief Healer doesn’t have access. How did you get some?” Her voice turned shrill, almost accusatory. “How?

“I must be mistaken,” I blurted. “It must be something else. I was just… confused.”

Her eyes shrunk to suspicious slits.

“What I need—it’s not that red.” I grappled for a plausible excuse, my brain still reeling from what Leona had just revealed. “Beetbark,” I finally eked out. “I’m looking for beetbark.”

The old woman darted off, disappearing behind a rack before emerging with a handful of jars of a deep magenta mixture dotted with clumps of chalky white stone. “Is this what you had in your stores?”

I nodded vehemently.

She shoved it close to my face, eyebrows a mile skyward. “Are you sure? You’re sure it was this?”

“Yes—yes, it was this. Pink, not red. I was confused.” I grabbed one of the jars and shoved it into my pack, offering a tense smile. “That’s the one.”

A heavy exhale escaped Leona’s mouth. She slid into a nearby chair, rubbing at the deep grooves that cut across her forehead.

I must have had a death wish at the words that came out of my mouth next, but I had to know.

“The red powder—why is it so regulated?”

Leona’s weary eyes turned up to me. Her lips pressed into a razor thin line. “It’s time for you to leave.” Her meaning was clear: the conversation was over. Not just for today—forever.

I offered a strained thank you and all but sprinted to the exit. I had almost crossed the threshold when I heard Leona call my name. When I turned back, her gaze had hardened, her features pulled taut.

“Merely knowing that powder exists is enough for the Crown to order your execution, girl. I don’t know what that mother of yours was up to down in Lumnos, but you need to stay far away from it.”

I walked away from the building as fast as my feet could carry me.

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